Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Adjectives, not nouns

The trans* community are not the only ones to point out that "transsexual" is not a noun, it's an adjective. There are many other groups who have made the same point. It's rude to refer to someone as "a dyslexic", "a spastic", "a gay", "a black", "a Chinese", "a Malay", "a ginger".

Why is that? Well, for one thing, the characteristic being referred to is not the only significant thing about them; it's not a defining characteristic. They may also write poetry, drive a vehicle, tap-dance, sing, be a great lover, and so on.

There are plenty of alternatives to using these adjectives as nouns. A transsexual person (who could be male or female - the term transsexual does not signify gender); a gay person; a person with ginger hair / a ginger-haired person; a person with dyslexia / a dyslexic person; a person with cerebral palsy; a Black person; a person of colour; a Chinese person; a Malaysian person. Of course, their ethnicity is only relevant in the context of a conversation about ethnicity. (Though several Black people have pointed out recently that the whole colour-blindness trope is actually really unhelpful and assimilationist.)

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Structural inequality of an invisible minority

I am part of a persecuted minority. OK, we are not very persecuted (people don't refuse us mortgages, or call for us to be executed, and we are allowed to get married), but we are persecuted, and our inequality is built into the environment - especially in America. Like people with ginger hair, we are regarded as legitimate targets for abuse.

What group am I referring to? Left-handed people.

In America, there's an epidemic of right-handed desk-chairs. Whenever I have had to sit at one of these, I either get two and flip the desk of the other one over so I can have it on my left, or just use it as a normal chair, because it is completely useless as a desk. However, right-handed desks are only the most extreme example of the environment being structured for right-handed people. Cameras are right-handed, scissors are right-handed (and are really painful for a left-handed person to use because the grips are sculpted for right-handed use, and the blades are the wrong way round), musical instruments and sporting bats, clubs etc are made for right-handed use. Computer mice are set by default for right-handed use, and often sculpted to cup nicely into the palm of your right hand. Bread knives, cake forks, kitchen knives - they are all made for optimum use by right-handed people (because the blades are sharp only on one side). When I was at school (admittedly over 30 years ago; things may have got better now), a teacher gave up trying to teach me to sew because I started a seam at the "wrong" end.

If you are right-handed, you are probably completely unaware of these issues. The world is quite literally structured to fit your grasp. You're probably thinking right now that I am just whingeing, and I could adapt to the right-handed environment (after all, it's not that hard), or buy left-handed implements (which, incidentally, are more expensive because they are produced in smaller numbers - and once you've learnt to compensate for the blades being the wrong way round on right-handed scissors, it's hard to cut straight with left-handed ones). Well folks, that's privilege, and being completely unaware of your privilege.

I bet you use words like "cack-handed", "gauche", "sinister" (or if you are Spanish, zurdo, which means clumsy or left-handed) -- all of which are insults meaning "left-handed". Even the word "left" means "surplus to requirements". in English, there are no less than seventeen different dialect words for left-handed, all of which mean "the hand you wipe your arse with" (including "cack-handed", which is regarded as a synonym for clumsy). People used to say stuff like "oh it looks weird when you do stuff with your left hand - it's all cack-handed".

I am raising this issue, not to claim equality with other forms of persecution and exclusion (after all, left-handed people are not in danger of our lives), but to point out that, unless you bump up against it every day of your life (as disabled people, minority ethnic people, LGBT people do every day), structural inequality is largely invisible - because you take the way the world fits your hand like a glove completely and utterly for granted.